Category: How I became a gambler

The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2


Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.




The road to Las Vegas, part two

Evil George Taylor doesn’t intend to be evil. In fact, he’s a kind-hearted man, a charming conversationalist, a very talented writer and a smart, gentle spirit. He’s a cultured guy, too. He attends the theatre, the opera, the symphony, and he’s always going to those places where you look at paintings by dead people… what do they call those joints? The word escapes me… Yeah, that’s right: museums! He hangs out at museums.

When all’s said and done, he’s probably the most cultured individual I know. He just happens to be in league with Mephistopheles. How do I know this? We go gambling together once a week, that’s how I know. Case closed.

Satan, get thee behind me!
Dare you look into the eyes of Evil George Taylor?

As any demonic entity will tell you, timing is all-important, and Evil George Taylor (EGT) began spinning his evil web around my innocent psyche in March of 2000. By then, fishing had lost its allure (hey, that’s almost a pun!). Most of it had to do with the commitment of time that fly fishing demanded. On Wednesdays, brother-in-law Alan would close his podiatry office and head for the Deschutes in his red BMW; I had an open invitation. Though I was (and am) self-employed, most weeks I simply could not justify clocking out for an entire day. Copy had to be written! Plays had to be penned!

Then there was the drive: two and a half hours over Mount Hood to the sleepy little burg of Maupin, Oregon. Once we landed in Maupin in the general vicinity of a hot fishing spot (secret to the world, revealed only to us by one or another of Alan’s patients), it was time to assemble our gear, squeeze into our rubber chest waders, then take the long walk in the sweltering heat to the bend in the river where our quarry awaited our arrival, hungry schools of alleged fish just waiting to be fooled by us. By the time we got to at the designated spot—IF we could find the designated spot—my overheated, rubber-clad lower body was drenched in sweat. Very moist. And hot. You could steam a head of broccoli down there. Suddenly it actually seemed like a grand idea to risk your life by stepping off the bank and into the treacherous current just to cool off.

Fishing (as well as gambling) requires selective amnesia. As an example, here are the things you might choose to forget until you step foot into the Deschutes:

  • The Deschutes is deep.
  • Its currents are treacherous.
  • Footing is unpredictable. They don’t mark with yellow tape the seven-foot holes that could swallow you up.
  • It is entirely possible that you could die there. Which I almost did.

That particular afternoon, I was in the stream, mid-tummy deep, a dozen yards from the shore, and about the same distance from Alan, who stood parallel to me casting his line. To my left, I could see several tantalizing little rings on the river’s surface, spots where a couple of fish were snacking on some hapless insect forms. I cast my line toward the rings but…couldn’t…quite…reach…the spot. Keeping my eyes on the prize, I took a small, slow-mo step to my left, threw out another cast.

Still not close enough.

Another teeny step to my left, and the riverbed disappears. In a second, I’m up to my neck in the Deschutes and the water rushes over the lip of my loose rubber waders, straight to my feet. This, I think, is what they mean by cement shoes. I’m sinking. I see my plastic box of flies float way. I’m frantically paddling, and in one of the most inane decisions I’ve ever made, I HANG ON TO MY ROD! I grip the damn thing like it’s a floatation device. After all, I’ve lost about fifty bucks worth of feathers and hooks, why waste another two hundred dollars worth of equipment?

I’m paddling with one arm, and Alan comes rushing towards me (which in effect is at a caterpillar’s pace when you’re chest-deep in a strong current) yelling “Let go of the rod! Let go of the rod!” He’s extending his rod, which I lunge toward and miss. He comes a step closer, and I’m able to grab the tip of the rod (hey, there’s the Fenwick logo!), gain footing, then take a soggy walk of shame back to the shore.

Alan, who’s not typically given to morbidity, says, “I flashed on bringing your corpse home to Jane. What would I say? ‘Here’s your dead husband’?” Pause, then: “And he hangs onto the rod? What the hell was going through your mind?”

Play like a cutthroat...

Enter EGT

So, by the spring of the year 2000, I was ready step out of the stream more or less permanently. That was the year that my (now ex-) wife had talked me into taking the kids to Las Vegas, during Vegas’s brief flirtation at remaking the city into a kid-friendly destination. Part of that makeover were shows like Cirque Du Soleil’s “O,” which my wife – a theatre director – was foaming at the mouth to see. She applied pressure to the point where soon the idea of travelling a thousand miles to see a water circus in the middle of the desert held enormous appeal to me. I’d just have to accept seedy, gaudy Las Vegas as the scummy coating around this precious aquatic jewel.

To be clear: I still hated the idea of Vegas and was intimidated by the notion of gambling. Losing, in my mind, was a foregone conclusion.

Then several days prior to departure, Evil George Taylor poked his head into my home office. It was prime time for the devil’s disciple, prime time for temptation

Blackjack, he said. Basic strategy, he said. You can win, he said.

Basic strategy? I liked the sound of that. According to EGT, using basic strategy tilted the odds in your direction. It was all a simple matter of memorizing a chart of numbers.

Off to Vegas I went. Before too long I made that decision to trade one hobby for another. With fly fishing, I reasoned, money flowed in one direction: downstream. With blackjack, there was at least the potential of recouping my investment. And once I started winning, there was no going back.

Fishing: A Coda

In the rafters of my garage are five fly rods, Fenwicks, in cylindrical tubes. Three of them are gifts from Bob when he retired from the sport and had no more use for them. There’s also a box out there labeled FISHING, which contains a pair of folded-up neoprene waders (minus the boots, which disintegrated years ago), reels, lines and many cases of flies, wet and dry. All this stuff has remained untouched for years, no doubt prompting an enormous collective sigh of relief from the world’s trout population. Why don’t I just sell the stuff? Maybe because my fondness for Bob, now deceased, makes the act of selling those rods seem crass. Maybe because all that gear represents my Plan B: If I go sour on poker, if I’m the victim of too many bad beats, I can always return to the Deschutes and go back to terrorizing those poor little creatures.

Despite photos like this, my daughters still love me.
Dressed for success, with Stella and Julia